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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth

By the 1960s, the concept of strong, disciplined families became the basis of the new racial stereotype of Chinese
Americans as "model minorities": domestic exemplars, upwardly mobile and politically docile. (William Brown / Tribune)

By ELLEN D. WU
JANUARY 23, 2014

reviews of Amy Chua's forthcoming book, "The Triple Package" (co-written with
husband Jed Rubenfeld), detonated a social media uproar among Asian Americans.
Many were infuriated by the New York Post's report that Chua, the self-styled Tiger

Mom, was identifying eight superior "cultural" groups in the United States: Jewish, Indian,
Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban and Mormon. For Asian Americans, the problem is
about another Chua production that seems to perpetuate the "model minority" myth and, in
particular, the notion that Asians are culturally even genetically endowed with the
characteristics that enable them to succeed in American society.
Before the mid-20th century, the Tiger Mom did not exist in the national imagination. Instead,
Americans believed that Chinese culture was disgusting and vile, viewing U.S. Chinatowns as
depraved colonies of prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts bereft of decency. Lawmakers and
citizens deployed these arguments to justify and maintain the segregation, marginalization and
http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0123-wu-chua-model-minority-chinese-20140123-story.html

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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

exclusion of Chinese from mainline society between the 1870s and World War II. Those efforts
were more than effective: to have a "Chinaman's chance" at that time meant that one had zero
prospects.
There is danger in offering culture as a formula for success, because our ideas of culture are
hardly fixed. The history of Americans' views about Chinese immigrant behaviors shows that
"culture" often serves as a blank screen onto which individuals project various political agendas,
depending on the exigencies of the moment.
During World War II, white liberals agonized that racism was damaging the United States' ability
to fight a war for democracy against the Axis powers. Many felt that the Chinese exclusion laws,
which had barred migrants from China from entering the country or becoming naturalized
citizens since the 1870s, risked America's trans-Pacific alliance with China against Japan. A coastto-coast campaign emerged to overturn the laws. The Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese
Exclusion recognized that it would have to neutralize deep-seated fear of "yellow peril" coolie
hordes. So it strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as "law-abiding, peaceloving, courteous people living quietly among us." Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in
1943.
In the 1950s, journalists, social scientists and policymakers recycled this fledgling idea, circulating
it further and wider as they groped for a solution to what they perceived as a national juvenile
delinquency crisis. The New York Times Magazine emphasized that Chinese youths displayed
"unquestioned obedience" toward their elders, while Look magazine celebrated their "high moral
sense." U.S. Rep. Arthur Klein of New York praised his Manhattan Chinatown constituents for
their "respect for parents and teachers," "stable and loving home life" and thirst for education.
These narratives gained traction because they upheld two dominant lines of Cold War-era
thinking. The first was the valorization of the nuclear family. Popular portrayals of Chinese
American households that attributed their orderliness to Confucian tradition resonated with
contemporary conservative mores. The second was anti-communism. Observers who lauded
stateside Chinese and their "venerable" Confucianism effectively drew contrasts between U.S.
Chinatowns and Mao Tse-tung's China to suggest that superiority of the American way of life.
By the 1960s, the concept of strong, disciplined families became the basis of the new racial
stereotype of Chinese Americans as "model minorities": domestic exemplars, upwardly mobile and
politically docile. In the midst of the black freedom movement of the 1960s, numerous politicians
and academics and the mainstream media contrasted Chinese with African Americans. They
found it expedient to invoke Chinese "culture" to counter the demands of civil rights and black
power activists for substantive change.
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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

In 1966, then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan defended his controversial
claim that the too-strong emphasis on matriarchy in black "culture" was to blame for the
"deterioration" of African American communities by pointing to the "enlightened family life" of the
relatively well-to-do Chinese. The magazine U.S. News & World Report unequivocally made the
same charged comparison: "At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent
to uplift Negros and other minorities, the nation's 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead
on their own with no help from anyone else."
Then, as now, Asian Americans were troubled by what they saw as untrue juxtapositions. For one,
the stereotype glossed over the myriad difficulties their communities faced: poverty, drugs, suicide,
mental illness. Ling-chi Wang warned in UC Berkeley's Asian American Political Alliance
newsletter (1968) that Chinatown's problems "will forever be neglected by the government" unless
the community liberated itself from "the tyranny of this Chinese myth."
Moreover, critics disliked the ways in which ideas about Asian Americans reinforced the
denigration of African Americans. Writing for Los Angeles-based Gidra magazine in 1969, Amy
Uyematsu resented being implicated in "white racism" by being "held up" before other minority
groups as a "model to emulate."
Today, the "model minority" concept both fascinates and upsets precisely because it offers an
unambiguous yet inaccurate blueprint for solving the nation's most pressing issues. The obstacles
Americans face in the global economy, our declining prospects for socioeconomic mobility and the
uncertainty of parenting in difficult times all are real challenges. But "culture" cannot explain
"success" any more than it can serve as a panacea for the dilemmas of the new millennium.
We've heard enough of specious generalizations about "model minorities." We need to see Asian
Americans and other racial, ethnic and religious groups for what they are: dynamic, diverse
and much more than one-dimensional stereotypes.
Ellen D. Wu, a history professor at Indiana University, is the author of "The Color of Success:
Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority."
Copyright 2014, Los Angeles Times

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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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11/11/2014

Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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Asian Americans and the 'model minority' myth - LA Times

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